Crater Lake National Park: Hiking to Cleetwood Cove

Second in a series about Crater Lake National Park

The start of the trail to Cleetwood Cove
The start of the trail to Cleetwood Cove

On the opposite side of the Mt. Mazama caldera from Rim Village sits the only trail that leads to the water of Crater Lake.  There’s no other safe (or National Park Service permitted) way to get to the lake’s edge or take a boat tour.  The trail to Cleetwood Cove is only 1.1 miles in length (2.2mi/3.5km roundtrip), but the elevation drops from 6850′ (2088m) to 6173′ (1882m) in a series of steep switchbacks.

Although not all tours stop there, boat tours departing from the cove are the only way to visit Wizard Island.  All five boats in Crater Lake’s flotilla arrived by helicopter.  Private boats like kayaks are forbidden (and just as well, considering how strenuous the return hike was in the mile high air).

Dock at Cleetwood Cove
Dock at Cleetwood Cove

On Saturday, August 16, 2014 Rachel and I drove to the parking lot at Cleetwood Cove and started our hike down around 10am.  The beginning of the trail passes through a forest of pine and a shrub Rachel identified as manzanita (“All parts edible” she said, according to what she learned on her treks in the California backcountry during her youth).

The trail is steep but in good condition. Rachel Pulverman photography, 2014
The trail is steep but in good condition. Rachel Pulverman photography, 2014

The trail has some views east towards Mt. Scott, though nothing any better than those visible from the rim.  As the trail progresses, the forest gives way to rocky areas with occasional patches of wildflowers.  Near the cove, signs warn against lingering on the trail due to the danger of rockslides.  We arrived at Cleetwood Cove after about 30 minutes of hiking.

Watch for falling rocks!
She may not be watching, per se, but she’s ready for a rockslide at least!  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

When we first arrived at Crater Lake National Park, we’d tried to book a boat tour to Wizard Island only to be informed that the trips were cancelled due to mechanical breakdown.  When we arrived at the cove, we learned that the boat was back in service and tours had resumed.  Unfortunately, we decided we didn’t have enough time to buy a ticket for a tour later in the day if we were still going to see sights in the rest of the park.

“Next visit!” has always been a common refrain for my family when facing setbacks on a trip.  My travel style, inherited from my father, is to see a lot of different places on a single trip rather than remaining for a long time in one place and doing everything a particular park or city offers.  Still, I think it would have been nice to spend three or four days at Crater Lake instead of the two I allowed.  Though I hesitate to advise based on a short visit, I would suspect boat tours would be best in the afternoon after the morning haze burns off.

Flowers by Crater Lake
Flowers by the water’s edge at Crater Lake

We relaxed at the lake edge, admiring the clusters of wildflowers growing among the boulders.  The haze interfered with what would otherwise have been an impressive panorama of the entire lake.  It was certainly a completely different angle than the views from up high on the rim; I wouldn’t really describe it as any better or worse.

View from Cleetwood Cove
View from Cleetwood Cove

Sitting by the shore, I splashed my hand into the lake.  The water was very cold, of course.  Even in the summer, the surface at Crater Lake doesn’t usually get warmer than 60°F (15.6°C).  The National Park Service does allow swimming at Cleetwood Cove, but I didn’t observe anyone crazy enough to try it (in contrast to what I later observed in the even colder water of Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park).

Fishing seems to be a much more popular leisure activity at Cleetwood.  Originally, Crater Lake had no fish, but six species were stocked there in the bad old days, before the park’s managers truly learned to “tread lightly on the land”.  Rainbow trout and kokanee (an inland variant of sockeye) salmon are the only species that have survived since fish were last stocked in 1941.  Unlimited fishing of these non-native species is allowed.  A license is not required but artificial lures are.  Most of the anglers we saw on the Cleetwood Cove Trail were returning empty handed, but one family caught a large rainbow trout during our visit.

Rock formation near Cleetwood Cove
Rock formation near Cleetwood Cove

The return hike took us about 40 minutes.  I have to admit, it was pretty tiring.  Certainly, there are a lot of places with thinner air, but we’d been near sea level only 36 hours before.  Even the moderately high altitude has a noticeable effect when combined with excretion from a steep trail.  It’s also not easy to train in advance for hikes in mountainous terrain when you live somewhere like Delaware, where the maximum elevation is 448′ (137m)!


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